May 12th, 2013 :: Reading Days
My mother’s old leather handbag,
Crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother’s handbag: mints
and lipstick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened,
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.
March 31st, 2013 :: Reading Days
the sermon is taking the shape
of her neighbor's hat
March 17th, 2013 :: Reading Days
The highway is full of big cars
going nowhere fast
And folks is smoking anything that'll burn
Some people wrap their lives around a cocktail glass
And you sit wondering
where you're going to turn.
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.
Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomorrow
But others say we've got a week or two
The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror
And you sit wondering
what you're gonna do.
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.
March 10th, 2013 :: Reading Days
“What are you reading these days?” Matt frequently asks me. Last week I answered: “Nothing.”
I’ve stopped reading.
Saying it out loud like that makes me cringe, but there it is. Somewhere between the ear infection and the migraines, the Franck sonata and Barber’s Hermit Songs, I stopped reading. It seemed like one small thing I could take off my overflowing plate without any significant repercussions. Perhaps it was a symbolic gesture more than anything: a way to say no to something when life was reeling out of control. Who knows?
If truth were told, I still start my morning with a cup of coffee and a volume of poetry. I read education psychology and music journals. I flip through The New Yorker. I dip into gardening books, just as my own backyard is waking up to spring. But I haven’t read a book---a real live book, beginning to end---in weeks. It feels strange.
But over Christmas I acquired a number of beautiful picture books for children. If ever there was a time to celebrate the silent, wordless book, this is it.
Bear Despair by Gaetan Doremus is a story about bear whose favorite teddy bear is taken from him by a wily fox (Aren’t all foxes “wily?”). The illustrations follow the antics required to get the teddy bear back (Hint: If you know the song “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly” you’ll have some idea how this narrative plays out.).
Waterloo and Trafalgar by Oliver Tallec tells the tale of two opposing generals and how they come to make peace. This is a sharp commentary on the futility of war without becoming preachy or righteous. Probably the lack of words saves the day on that front: it’s hard to be too judgmental with charming pictures of stout generals dressed in blue and orange uniforms.
The Umbrella by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert traces the adventure taken by a little black dog who is swept away by a big red umbrella and a mighty wind. He travels the world (Lions and tigers and bears—Oh My!), only, in the end, to arrive back where he started. A nice metaphor for all of us.
And a couple quiet children books with words….
Henri’s Walk to Paris by Leonore Klein. This is a newly reissued book with illustrations done by the artist Saul Bass. This lovely story celebrates the possibility of finding the whole world in your own backyard.
Little Bird by Germano Zullo is reminds us to honor the present, and how the smallest gifts before us have the power to change our perspectives. This is a beautiful book.
The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood describes the many forms of quiet in the world (“There are many kinds of quiet: First one awake quiet….Sleeping sister quiet…Best friends don’t need to talk quiet….”). This exploration of silence is not merely a children’s book, it is a poem, or a tiny sonata.
February 24th, 2013 :: Reading Days
the library book
slow falling snow
-Gary Hotham The Haiku Anthology
February 10th, 2013 :: Reading Days
my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the
cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
January 20th, 2013 :: Reading Days
The man who has many answers
is often found
in the theaters of information
where he offers, graciously,
his deep findings.
While the man who has only questions,
to comfort himself, makes music.
December 16th, 2012 :: Reading Days
A student of mine recently wrote her letter to Santa. In it she detailed the things she wanted from “the most wanted to the least wanted.” In addition, she put “a star next to the things that are optional, but wanted.” I love that: “optional, but wanted.” What a nice use of a comma for one thing.
I could make a whole list of things in my life that are “optional, but wanted.” Like new countertops in my kitchen. Someone to rake my leaves. A new kitten.
How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. This book has gotten lots of press this fall, and deservedly so. I am pushing this book on all the parents in my studio and in my life. It provides a convincing argument that the road to success may not be intelligence or talent, but rather character traits such as perseverance (or “grit”), conscientiousness, and the knowledge of how to work. Or as I call it, practice. There is music education research that indicates that teaching students how to practice leads to a higher level of success (and possibly longer retention in music activities) than teaching that focuses on mastering repertoire. If you want students to do well and stay in music longer, first teach them how to work and how to practice. I think Paul Tough would agree.
Quiet by Susan Cain. This book takes a celebratory look at the contributions introverts make in an extraverted world. As an incurable introvert myself (although I like to hope one with good social skills) this book makes for a fascinating read not only into understanding my own stubborn resistance and preferences, but also providing a deeper insight into the people, students and loved ones in my life.
Help. Thanks. Wow. by Anne Lamott. If you know and love Anne Lamott already, this book does not need a sales pitch. If you don’t know Lamott’s work, then it’s time. This book fits into a stocking.
And a couple reads for the young at heart….
I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. Both books by Jon Klassen. These books are, in one of my student’s words, adorable. And funny too. And teach a lesson about not stealing. Win-win-win. Don’t tell, but my nephew Asher is getting these for Christmas.
The Island by Marije and Ronald Tolman. Listed in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, this is a beautiful, intriguing picture book. I don’t completely understand it, but I think a child would. My nephew Felix is getting this one.
You can decide if these are “optional, but wanted.”
December 9th, 2012 :: Reading Days
It was nice being a genius
worth nearly half-a-million dollars
for the two or three minutes it took me
to walk back to my house from the mailbox
with the letter from the Foundation
trembling in my hand. Frankly,
for the first minute
I was somewhat surprised at being a genius.
I'd only published a few small things at that point.
I didn't even have a book.
I was just a part-time lecturer
at a small mid-western college.
But early into the second minute
I had fully embraced the fact of my genius.
I mean, these people know what they're doing, right?
Who am I to tell the Foundation its business?
And I was already practicing the kind of modest,
Hey, it's no big deal tone of voice I'd be using
on the phone for the rest of the day
as I called all my friends, and especially
my enemies, to treat them to the good news.
But when I opened the letter
and saw it was merely a request
for me to recommend someone else to be a genius,
I lost interest and made myself a ham sandwich.
- George Bilgere
October 28th, 2012 :: Reading Days
Today I'm flying low and I'm
not saying a word.
I'm letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
from A Thousand Mornings
October 21st, 2012 :: Reading Days
If I love teaching, it is with the same desperate, unsentimental, and at times involuntary love that I have for living itself. Like the life of which it forms so large a part, my job absorbs me, nourishes me, and wounds me; it says “I am all there is to existence” at the same time that it urges me to believe in a better one. A single moment of the ecstasy it can provide outweighs a whole year’s drudgery; a single accident, a single indiscretion can spoil its sweetness forever. I know I am blessed to partake of it, and I know just as well that I shall have neither rest nor peace until it is done.
-from No Place But Here: A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community
by Garret Keizer (p. 109)
September 23rd, 2012 :: Reading Days
Courage doesn’t always soar.
Sometimes courage is the small voice at the end of the day saying,
“I will try again tomorrow.”
August 26th, 2012 :: Reading Days
There is something about the beginning of school that makes me want to sharpen all my pencils, buy clean notebooks and journals, and set lofty and noble intentions for the new year. Last winter a student told me about an exercise he did for school called “18 by 18”. Students were asked to set 18 intentions to be accomplished by the age of 18. Timmy told me that one of his intentions was to learn to play 5 instruments. At the age of 13 after having picked up two band instruments last year, he now knows 3, so he is off to a good start.
Always a sucker for a list-making exercise, I loved everything about this “18 by 18” activity. In fact, in honor of a recent significant birthday, I thought I might make a similar list: “40 at 40.”
The problem is that it is so hot around here that I can barely turn over on the couch, let alone be inspired to turn over a new leaf.
In fact, it has been quite a scramble to get my ducks in a row this semester. My fall newsletter was sent out and delivered at the last possible minute because I could not convince myself that it was really time to set lesson schedules and performance classes. I bought new sight-reading music on the last day of my summer break and spent the hour before my first student arrived hurriedly cataloguing the new books. I had thought I might do a grand clean of the house before the semester began, but had to settle for a quick vacuum. I didn’t even shake out the rugs. So much for good intentions.
But students will be pleased to know that I did manage to purchase new books for the sunroom library as I do every August. Just this week Jamie arrived to his lesson early. I was gobbling down the last of my lunch so I told him I'd be with him in a couple of minutes. "Oh good," he said, "That way I have time to read the books."
Here are the new additions to the sunroom library:
The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton is a book I remember loving as a child. It lived at my grandmother’s house, and will forever be a part of my association with her memory. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel was not part of my childhood, but it is another classic by Burton. One little boy has already squealed with delight in finding this book on my shelf.
In a house inhabited by two cats, there are always the feline books:
Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes and Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton have been favorites for a while now. But my new cat book, If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, combines clever haikus with beautiful illustrations by Ted Rand. This might be my new favorite.
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett is about a girl who covers her world with her magical knitting creations. There was a time when I was obsessively knitting that my family probably thought, “Oh no! Not another scarf!” This book makes me smile.
Stuck by Oliver Jeffers tells the story about a boy whose kite gets stuck in a tree. In his attempt to free the kite, the boy throws first one thing after another into the tree (If you know the song “I know an old woman who swallowed a fly” you get the idea). Underneath this simple story is a larger metaphor for the unfortunate habit we all have at throwing unhelpful things at situations until the problem is bigger than it ever needed to be. At the end of the book, the boy solves the problem by throwing a saw into the tree and untangling his kite, leaving the rest of the mess behind. I suspect we have all done that too.
Finally, no August would be complete without a new Eric Carle book. This year it is: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. (And a red crocodile, and a yellow cow….) After a summer of tediously painting the new doors deep blue and wine red and beet purple, I am very happy to simply read about painting.
New leaves or not, here’s to a new school year of blue horses, yarn for everyone and plenty of creative solutions to thorny problems.
August 19th, 2012 :: Reading Days
I haven't traveled anywhere. But is that bad?
I can busy myself with my small world.
Dust the window sills and study rain.
Use water, air, fire frugally.
And so each evening I visit the plantations of the balcony
where God reveals slowly the mysteries of plants:
Frugaria vesca reddens densely,
Lycopersicon begins to ripen.
Here I can experience tempestuous adventures,
flip on the TV and watch the lie
like a strange fish behind the aquarium wall,
catch a spider and spare its life,
argue learnedly before the mirror
that this is mine, my own reflection.
And when the multitude of daily chores exhausts me
and the night hides summer souvenirs,
I call the dog, let him out in a deserted square,
and all alone look around that other world.
-Krzysztof Lisowski (translated by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough)
July 15th, 2012 :: Reading Days
perfect summer sky--
one blue crayon
missing from the box
-Evelyn Lang, The Haiku Anthology
May 20th, 2012 :: Reading Days
Measure me, sky!
Tell me I reach by a song
Nearer the stars:
I have been little so long.
Weigh me, high wind!
What will your wild scales record?
Profit of pain,
Joy by the weight of a word.
Horizon, reach out!
Catch at my hands, stretch me taut,
Rim of the world:
Widen my eyes by a thought.
Sky, be my depth;
Wind, be my width and my height;
World, my heart's span:
Loneliness, wings for my flight!
April 8th, 2012 :: Reading Days
He told us, with the years, you will come
to love the world.
And we sat there with our souls in our laps,
and comforted them.
Dorothea Tanning (2004)
March 25th, 2012 :: Reading Days
Recently someone asked me what I had been reading. I almost bit her head off, citing immediately a long list of trials and tribulations that stand in the way between me and the next good book. And, while it is true that the days of pleasure reading are rare, that isn’t the whole story. I do read. Every single day.
Sometimes I read the dreaded measurement texts or the dry research papers that are the bread and butter of a graduate degree in Ed Psych (When in doubt, assign another research paper to be read. I am convinced that this is the pedagogical theory that my professors live and breathe by.) But in the last few years, I have sharpened my skills at skimming, and let go forever my guilt at simply not reading huge sections of these papers and texts. After all, I reason, I don’t understand 90% of the numbers anyway. Thank goodness for the summary located at the end of these published papers. I should consider incorporating the summary feature into this blog. Some of you out there might appreciate it.
Every morning I start the day with my cup of coffee and my stack of books on Zen practices and gardening. A Year at North Hill by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd is lovely, in every way. The Writer in the Garden (edited by Jane Garmey) has proven to be another inspiration. Writers as various as Vita Sackville-West and Michael Pollan have contributed to this collection of short essays on all things gardening. Just this morning, I finished The Buddha in the Classroom by Donna Quesada, an interesting take on both Zen Buddhism and teaching. There is nothing like a little Zen thought and a few helpful hints about what I should do with my unruly patch of mint to make me ready to face the day. This, I must admit, does count as reading.
In fact, while we were in Portland in January, roaming the aisles at Powell’s bookstore, I jotted down lists of books I was interested in. Back at home, I reserved a whole bounty of these titles, forgetting that the public library did not work like Netflix. This was not a queue of books I was requesting, that would appear to me one at a time, the next book arriving when the previous one had been read and returned. Nope. That isn’t how the public library runs the reserved list, although they should. (Admittedly, I should have known better, but I had never reserved so many books in one sitting.) Instead, what happened, of course, is that I got an e-mail announcing that I had a dozen books waiting for me all at the same time. The ride back from the library that day was harrowing, with me trying to balance all these books in my three bicycle baskets. Matt thought this was hysterical, my miscalculation of the library queue, and exactly what I deserved since I still suspiciously eye his lightweight Kindle and, to this day, refuse to admit that I was wrong to carry a coffee table book through France that one trip many years ago.
Anyway. I read all those books, I’ll have you know.
Here are the highlights:
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. This is a Civil War novel about a woman who wants to be a surgeon. Engaging and interesting.
My Own Country by Abraham Verghese. Another book by the same author, Cutting for Stone, was the best book I read last year. Verghese is a doctor, and this is a memoir about his work with AIDS patients in Tennessee during the 1980’s. Very sad and thought-provoking. It will stay with you, long after you have finished reading.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I am the last person on the planet to read this book. Even if you hate orchids or flowers of any kind, it is worth reading for the other-worldly descriptions of the swamplands of Florida.
Better by Atul Gawande. Another writer/physician, Gawande writes articles about the art of being a doctor for The New Yorker. This book appears to be about becoming a better doctor, but it is really about becoming a better human being. I especially loved the afterward: “Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant.” Every teacher, every musician, every human being, should read it.
And for those of us with limited time and attention spans, two short story collections to recommend:
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. I was first attracted to the contrariness of the title, but these are great stories with interesting characters. The theme reflected in the title is woven through each story, that idea that there is tension and conflict in every decision or choice we make.
The Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble. This collection of stories spans her writing career of 50 years. Each story provides a glimpse into the inner workings of a character, often with a surprising insights and understanding.
Wishing you stolen moments on the couch or in your favorite overstuffed chair, drink in hand, reading.
March 18th, 2012 :: Reading Days
You are the bottom line, my love, the net
that catches me each time I take a leap
toward an absolute that isn't there
but appears dispersed in the relative:
warm supper waiting when I get in late,
my folded long johns on the laundry stack,
the covers on my side turned sweetly down
when I finally head upstairs from work
that couldn't wait till morning, the love note
tucked in my suitcase for my night away.
It says the obvious the old clichés
I wouldn't want my friends to know we use
for love. And god forbid my enemies
should get hold of these endearments,
so banal, I would lose my readers' trust
if someone published them under my name.
But still as I write mine (with smiley face)
and slip it under the pillow on your side,
or when I read yours in a hotel room
I feel more moved than by a Rilke poem.
or a Tolstoy novel or a Shakespeare play.
My love grows stronger with the tried and true
if it comes from you. More and more as we age
and the golden boys peer out of the magazines
with their sultry looks and their arched brows,
I am so relieved I'm not an ingénue
searching for you at parties, singles bars.
I have you, waving when my plane gets in,
curling your body in the shape of mine,
my love, my number one, my bottom line.
from The Woman I Kept to Myself
February 12th, 2012 :: Reading Days
becoming a photograph
-George Swede from The Haiku Anthology
January 15th, 2012 :: Reading Days
Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.
December 18th, 2011 :: Reading Days
Oh the weather outside is frightful....
Winter is upon us, just in time for the holidays. This week we experienced both single digit temperatures and frigid wind chills. And that’s just inside the house. Last Thursday we had a windstorm that brought our city gusts up to 75 mph. The annual holiday street fair scheduled that night was a bust; we all stayed home and shivered instead. In our old drafty home, we struggle to stay warm. Last night we used the electric bed warmer all night long; the two cats are no longer enough to take the edge off the cold. Matt holes up in the study with a space heater and a pile of blankets while he drinks his coffee and reads. Today he announced, “The study is a toasty 67 degrees if you want to join me.”
It is not anywhere near a toasty 67 degrees out by the piano where I live and work.
Clearly, the universe is sending a message: time to hibernate.
In this spirit, I offer the following book recommendations for those cozy nights by the fire. *A Winter’s Tale by Robert Sabuda The Night Before Christmas by Robert Sabuda The Christmas Alphabet by Robert Sabuda The 12 Days of Christmas by Robert SabudaEvery year at this time I get out my Christmas pop-up books, and put my everyday supply of pop-up books in the basement. (“Keeping your wife in pop-up books must get expensive,” one of Matt’s youth choir kids once commented.) These books are devoured by my students. When I hear Ooohing and Ahhing in the sunroom while they wait for their lessons, I know they must have a pop-up book. But these books are timeless and ageless. I make it a point every December to sit down and enjoy the magical creativity of these books myself.
*Trail by David PelhamThis is another pop-up book, although not specifically a Christmas one. It is, however, beautiful and entirely done in white, which makes it rather winter-ish, don’t you think?
*A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Lisbeth ZwergerI re-read this every year. The illustrations in this edition are lovely. *The Morville Hours by Katherine SwiftIt wouldn’t be winter if I wasn’t reading a gardening book and plotting the spring. This book is the story of making a garden in England, organized around the Book of Hours. In a world where our days and nights, seasons and traditions are blurred, this is a lovely reminder of another time and place. Especially as we head towards the winter’s solstice, I love the nudge to honor the seasons and to respect the natural boundaries of day and night. I love the idea of keeping feast days and watching the moon, of living by candlelight from time to time and turning off the overhead lights. (Around here, the moon has been large and luminous coming up over the mountain in the evenings. One morning as I left the pool after my pre-dawn swim, the full moon was hanging over the western horizon, blood-red orange. It was magical beginning to the day.) *Cutting for Stone by Abraham VergheseHands down the best novel I read this year. *State of Wonder by Ann PatchettThe second best novel I read this year. At least once on every page there was a sentence that made me sigh and think, “I wish I had written that.” *The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
This is a memoir about a woman who grew up in a poverty-stricken family that always verged on being homeless. That she survived this rough childhood is one thing, that she lived to write this remarkable book is quite another altogether. *A Strong West Wind by Gail CaldwellI recommended Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home last summer. This is her first book, a memoir about growing up in Texas. Her prose is breathtaking.*Journal of Solitude by May SartonSomething about winter makes me think about Sarton, and so nearly every year I reread something by this New England writer. The world she writes about seems a bit dated today (or perhaps a bit retro?), but so many of the themes are classic. In spite of the fact I have read her books dozens of times, something new always jumps out at me and makes me think. Journal of Solitude is my favorite of all her books.
Happy Winter Reading.
October 30th, 2011 :: Reading Days
These days, haiku are about the level of word processing I can take in. When too many days are overflowing with hours stuffed with too many obligations, haiku are like raindrops, tiny still moments of quiet, breathing space into our busy lives.
Opening its eyes
closing its eyes
a cat in the sun.
from The Haiku Anthology
October 2nd, 2011 :: Reading Days
I am falling love
with my imperfections
The way I never get the sink really clean,
forget to check my oil,
lose my car in parking lots,
miss appointments I have written down,
am just a little late.
I am learning to love
the small bumps on my face
the big bump of my nose,
my hairless scalp,
chipped nail polish,
toes that overlap.
Learning to love
the open-ended mystery
of not knowing why
I am learning to fail
to make lists,
use my time wisely,
read the books I should.
Instead I practice inconsistency,
Probably I should
hang my clothes neatly in the closet
all the shirts together, then the pants,
send Christmas cards, or better yet
a letter telling of
my perfect family
But I'd rather waste time
listening to the rain,
or lying underneath my cat
learning to purr.
I used to fill every moment
with something I could
cross off later.
the laundry done and folded
all my papers graded
the whole truth and nothing but
Now the empty mind is what I seek
the formless shape
the strange off center
September 3rd, 2011 :: Reading Days
Eight-six degrees, high tide.
We were arguing about suicide.
Me, safe from the sun under the umbrella;
you, propped on your elbows in the sand,
your arms, recently iron-pumped, bronzing smoothly,
your short gold curls and strong nose almost
Roman coinworthy as you scanned
the water with restless air and announced
you'd kill yourself, you really would,
if you weren't a coward.
While I maintained the wish to die
itself was cowardly.
And I didn't believe you:
you didn't really want to die.
What about speed and wind--
your long bike rides, tracing the harbor
on unknown roads? What about your pencil
setting a line on a clean sheet of drafting
paper? Women with small breasts
and certain customs you were said
to love in bed? At the very least,
the kind of happiness that's purely physical.
The person who wants to die,
you snapped, doesn't care about
any of that. He'd give it all up
for a moment's peace. Peace from
striving, from endless dissatisfaction
with a self that's less than idea.
I'd do it, you insisted, if I weren't
shit-scared of pain.
If it's pain you don't like
you'd take pills, I said.
But I hadn't won, and added lamely;
Aren't you curious how your life
is going to Turn Out? That's not
a question of being brave--
just mildly vain, which you are,
or so you claim.
You didn't answer for a while,
and half-enraged (or was it half in love)
I watched your critic's eye alight
on a black haired figure clad in white
bikini as she ran lightly down
the hard-packed sand and dove
into a creamy wave.
A Working Girl Can't Win
July 24th, 2011 :: Reading Days
From The Pastor as Minor Poet:
"After wasting far too many years trying to do the spectacular, it has finally occurred to me that God loves routine. All of creation holds together by the same things happening again and again, whether those are great things, like planets revolving around stars, or very small things, like electrons going around and around their nucleus. And with each rotation, year after year, through winter, spring, summer, and fall, if you are paying attention, you can almost hear the doxology: 'Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.' Similarly, we are not asked to be other than a part of this created order who get up, go to work, care for children, make meals, do laundry, pay bills, and go to bed, only to rise the next morning to do it all again. 'Keep on doing . . .,' the apostle commends. But along the way, those whose pastors have taught them to pay attention do it all as doxology."
-M. Craig Barnes
July 3rd, 2011 :: Reading Days
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I visited the Stein exhibit at the MOMA and afterwards wandered into the art museumís store. There I stumbled upon a childrenís book by Herve Tullet entitled Press Here. On the cover was a yellow dot, and on each page contained various instructions: ďPress the yellow dot,Ē ďShake them up a little,Ē ďTry blowing on them.....Ē I was immediately enchanted, and bought the book for my studio back home. I wondered if I would be able to catch a student obediently obeying these instructions, perhaps convinced that these actions were actually doing something profound, or, at the very least, helping to create the image that would then appear on the next page.
The next week a young student was waiting in the sunroom after his lesson. ďThereís a new book on the shelf,Ē I called out to him from the next room. A few minutes later, I peeked in. Charlie was sitting there, diligently shaking the book on cue. I grinned, but said nothing. After painstakingly working through each page, he reported back to me , ďMiss Amy, this is a cool book.Ē
One of the joys of not having children, yet having children in my life, is that I can indulge my passion for great childrenís books. My students know every book on my studio shelves intimately. From time to time I even catch parents browsing the stacks.
Here are a few of the favorites:
I have mentioned these books before, but they remain at the top of the list, so they deserve another shout-out. The five book pop-up series by David Carter--One Red Dot, Yellow Square, Two Blue, 600 Black Spots, White Noise--are brilliantly imaginative. Kids of all ages devour them (I have witnessed groups of college age kids fighting over the books.). Mine are so loved they are falling apart and need to be replaced.
The Pigeon Wants a Puppy! by Mo Willems. This is for that person we all know who desperately wants something until they actually acquire it.
Simonís Cat by Simon Tofield. This is the book version of the hugely popular YouTube cartoons about Simon and his curious, relentlessly insufferable cat. Once I caught a little boy reading this book while waiting for his lesson. He was giggling uncontrollably, which was music to my ears. (I have a soft place in my heart for people who laugh out loud when they read to themselves). When he came into his lesson I asked him if he knew about the Simonís Cat videos. He didnít, which only goes to prove that things donít have to be digital to win over the younger generation.
Olivia has gone to Venice since last we spoke. She ate at least as much gelato as I did in Italy two summers ago. (Olivia Goes to Venice by Ian Falconer.)
And finally, Awkward Family Photos by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack. Our friends tell me that my husbandís most notable characteristic on Facebook are the unfortunate photos he finds on the Internet and then posts as his profile picture every Monday morning. In honor of this habit, one of his youth choir kids gave him this book of bad family photos. It quickly found a home on the studio shelf and is the favorite among any student or parent with a healthy sense of humor, and the ability to laugh heartily at the embarrassing portraits of others.
Itís summertime, the liviní is easy, and the reading is good.
June 12th, 2011 :: Reading Days
I have recently gotten in the habit of carrying a small book of poetry with me when I travel. Poems are perfect for those long lines at the airport, for bus rides or while waiting for your morning latte. It's wonderful then to look back and associate a certain volume of poetry or a particular poet with that holiday. This week we were in San Francisco, arriving home late last night. Accompanying me throughout my days of wandering the streets, climbing the hills, watching the people, and sitting on park benches was Mary Oliver's Dream Work. From it comes this poem.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations--
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
April 24th, 2011 :: Reading Days
Show me again the time
When in the Junetide's prime
We flew by meads and mountains northerly!--
Yes, to such freshness, fairness, fulness, fineness,
Love lures life on.
Show me again the day
When from the sandy bay
We looked together upon the pestered sea!--
Yes, to such surging, swaying, sighing, swelling,
Love lures life on.
Show me again the hour
When by the pinnacled tower
We eyed each other and feared futurity!--
Yea, to such bodings, broodings, beatings,
Love lures life on.
Show me again the just this:
The moment of that kiss
Away from the prancing folk, by the
Yea, to such rashness, ratheness, rareness,
Love lures life on.
April 17th, 2011 :: Reading Days
One of the unfortunate by-products of being in graduate school is that I donít read as much. Actually, I should clarify that sentence: I donít read as much for pleasure
. I read, I can assure you. Oh yes, I read. In fact, in the next few months I will have read more research articles than most people do in a lifetime. This, I can tell you, is nothing to look forward to.
But recently I have come to the conclusion that unless I just begin reading books I want to read, even if I think I have no time to do so, I will never find the time. This, I know, is not profound, but nevertheless it feels like a small piece of wisdom to hang onto these days. And so, even though I have no real business doing so, even though my garden is screaming for attention, even though I have music to learn and papers to write, even though my house needs serious cleaning, I am reading.
In celebration of this little act, here are a few books and authors that I have recently found. That these writers would now make my top 10 list and I hadnít read ANY of them a year ago, reminds me that thereís a lifetime of good reading still to be discovered.
A Place of My Own
by Michael Pollan. I know I am slow to jump on the Michael Pollan
bandwagon. In fact, I still havenít read that Omnivoresís Dilemma
. But I will, one of these days, because I am so taken with Pollanís style. I think he could write about anything and make it interesting. This book is about him building, with his own two hands and some helpful friends, a writing studio. Itís a wonderful, inspiring read and makes me want to do the same, almost.
The Fiddler in the Subway
by Gene Weingarten
. I once used this Pultizer Prize winning essay as the inspiration for an American Music Teacher
column. This is a collection of essays written by Weingarten for the Washington Post. They are, every last one of them, brilliantly written.
Letís Take the Long Way Home
by Gail Caldwell
. OK. I lied just a bit. I had read Gail Caldwell before this year, as she was the book critic for the Boston Globe while we lived there. I used to read every review she wrote even if I could care less about the book, because her writing was so stunning. I had been hearing about this book, subtitled A Memoir of Friendship
, since it was published last year, and in mid-November reserved it from the library. Only last week--last week!--did I get an email telling me that this book was waiting for me. This long waiting list should have been my first clue that this book was something special.
I read it in 24 hours and immediately went out and bought a copy for myself and my two best friends. This is not just a book about friendship, although it is that, it is also an ode to building a life for yourself that you can be proud of. The sub-themes are too numerous to list here, but as I emailed several friends in the days after finishing this beautiful book, ďRun, donít walk to your nearest bookstore/library and get this book.Ē
You will thank me.
April 10th, 2011 :: Reading Days
Not quite four a.m., when the rapture of being alive
strikes me from sleep, and I rise
from the comfortable bed and go
to another room, where my books are lined up
in their neat and colorful rows. How
magical they are! I choose one
and open it. Soon
I have wandered in over the waves of the words
to the temple of thought.
And then I hear
outside, over the actual waves, the small,
perfect voice of the loon. He is also awake,
and with his heavy head uplifted he calls out
to the fading moon, to the pink flush
swelling in the east that, soon,
will become the long, reasonable day.
Inside the house
it is still dark, except for the pool of lamplight
in which I am sitting.
I do not close the book.
Neither, for a long while, do I read on.
What Do We Know
February 27th, 2011 :: Reading Days
Once or twice and maybe again, who knows,
the timid nuthatch will come to me
if I stand still, with something good to eat in my hand.
The first time he did it
he landed smack on his belly, as though
the legs wouldnít cooperate. The next time
he was bolder. Then he became absolutely
wild about those walnuts.
But there was a morning I came late and, guess what,
the nuthatch was flying into a strangerís hand.
To speak plainly, I felt betrayed.
I wanted to say: Mister,
that nuthatch and I have a relationship.
It took hours of standing in the snow
before he would drop from the tree and trust my fingers.
But I didnít say anything.
Nobody owns the sky or the trees.
Nobody owns the hearts of birds.
Still, being human and partial therefore to my own successes--
though not resentful of others fashioning theirs--
Iíll come tomorrow, I believe, quite early.
from Red Bird
February 6th, 2011 :: Reading Days
comes out of the sky
like bleached flies.
The ground is no longer naked.
The ground has on its clothes.
The trees poke out of sheets
and each branch wears the sock of God.
There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
I bite it.
Someone once said:
Don't bite till you know
if it's bread or stone.
What I bite is all bread,
rising, yeasty as a cloud.
There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
Today God gives milk
and I have the pail.
- Anne Sexton
January 30th, 2011 :: Reading Days
A loyal reader (I believe it might be the "Mary from Montana") once told me that my blogs always made her want to run out and buy some more books. If that is the worse charge anyone can throw at me, I'll take it. Anything to help the straggling old fashioned book these days.
I have not gone over to the dark side, as we call it around our house, and succumbed to the convenience of a Kindle. There are people that I love and otherwise hold dear that now own such a gadget, but I'm staying firm in my untrendy ways. In today's world, I'm convinced the most powerful vote we have is how we spend our money. For now, I'll continue dropping whole paychecks in my favorite bookshops. If for no other reason, I value too highly the ability to scribble in the margins of my books, dog-ear the pages, and rifle back to remind myself what was said back there on that right-hand side page about half-way down. None of these things can be done with any satisfaction on a screen, no matter how smart it might otherwise be.
In spite of the never-ending festive season of the last few months, it has been a great winter for reading. We've seen frigid cold days and nights with temperatures in the single digits. I interpret this as nature's way of saying, "Girlfriend, curl up under a blanket and just read."
There are friends who live too far and visit too seldom, and yet when we see each other one of our first questions always is, "What are you reading?" In the spirit of such friendships, I offer the following list of my most recent favorite books......
by Daphne Kalotay
. I'm not sure why this appeared on my library queue, but I'm thankful nonetheless. Probably I scribbled down the title after browsing in a bookstore and later reserved it at our library. I then promptly forgot all about it until that friendly email reminder came in my inbox: "The book you requested is waiting...." Our neighborhood library is a short 10 minute bicycle ride away, and very well may win the award for the cutest library ever. It was once a house, and a tiny one at that, but today every wall is covered in floor to ceiling bookshelves. (Actually this sounds suspiciously like our house...) When I search the stacks I often find myself tracing the walls all the way into the closets to find the book I'm looking for. The magazines are housed in the bathroom. You return books in the kitchen. Really, in today's world of slick library showcases, this couldn't be more 1950's. Or maybe 1940's. Actually about 1900. Just my speed.
I digress. As I was saying.....
Russian Winter. This is a wonderful novel about a retired Russian ballerina who has escaped her country and is living in Boston. She has a large collection of jewels which she is auctioning off to benefit the Boston Ballet. The story behind her jewels is the backdrop of the book. Any novel set in Boston tugs at my heartstrings, and a book with connections to the ballet (I am convinced that I was a dancer in a past life), does so doubly.
Last summer friends visiting from Jackson, Mississippi suggested The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
. I immediately forgot about it until another friend recommended it. Again, thanks to the gods of library reservation, this one came my way just in time for my trip to Texas. I have since discovered that I might be the last person on the planet to have read this terrific book about domestic help and their employers set in Jackson in the 1960's, but I was always behind the trend. I hear there will be a movie made of this novel, which makes perfect sense as the characters are all vivid in my imagination. I have no doubt it has the makings of a terrific film, but read the book first.
About the time we were drowning in company over the holidays, I was reading Solomon's Oak
by Jo-Ann Mapson
, which provided the perfect excuse and motivation to shut my bedroom door from time to time and lie down to escape the non-stop conversation and bustle and dive into this sweet story. The human spirit triumphs, which is my friend Lora's requirement for any good book or movie.
As we said goodbye to the last of the holiday guests and prepared to burrow in for a few quiet days alone, I began reading The Postmistress
by Sarah Blake
. Another triumph for the human spirit and for good winter read all at the same time. This one was set during WWII in London and on Cape Cod, which after Boston would be my next favorite places to set a good story.
And then just because the weather outside was frightful and the fire was so delightful, I felt my annual urge to read gardening books. This hits me every winter, just when it would be most preposterous to actually think about going outside and digging in the dirt. Or the frozen ground as the case would be. There is just nothing better than reading detailed instructions about how to prune some plant I have never even heard of. My most recent favorite gardening book acquired from a lucky Christmas gift exchange is The Curious Gardener
by Anna Pavord
, the genius writer and gardener from England (of course) who brought us armchair garden dreamers The Tulip
and last year the glorious photo book Bulb.
This is a delightful read of short essays structured around the calendar. I'm already half-way through April's essays.
My favorite book as of late has to be Lane Smith's It's A Book. During our recent trip to NYC, we were browsing in a delightful children's bookstore on 18th Street and Matt picked up this picture book. The characters are three cartoon animals--a monkey, a donkey, and a mouse. The donkey asks the monkey what he is holding, and the monkey responds, "It's a book." The donkey asks a serious of irritating questions, "Can it text? Blog? Scroll? Wi-F? Tweet?" To each the monkey patiently answers, "No. It's a book." The questions continue, becoming more and more ridiculous until on the final page the mouse whispers to the donkey, "It's a book, jackass."
Which is why this book won't be put on the shelves that house the books for students to read. It takes no imagination whatsoever to imagine how "It's a book, jackass," might become the new motto of the ten thousand stars studio right after those lofty thoughts about birds and singing and learning not to dance.
Happy reading, Mary.
January 9th, 2011 :: Reading Days
We worry rather than ruminate. We fret rather than speculate. Even football teams take time-outs, but it is so hard for us, as artists, to do the same. So often we feel there is so much we yearn to do and so little time to do it in. We could take a cue from music here: "Rest" is a musical term for a pause between flurries of notes. Without that tiny pause, the torrent of notes can be overwhelming. Without a rest in our lives, the torrent of our lives can be the same.
Even God rested. Even waves rest. Even business titans close their office doors and play with the secret toys on their desks. Our language of creativity knows this. We talk about "the play of ideas," but we still overwork and underplay and wonder why we feel so drained....
As artists living with the drone of commerce, we have forgotten that "Rest" is a musical term, and that to hear the music of our lives as something other than a propulsive drumbeat, driving us forward as the war drums drove men into bloody battle, we may need to rest.
The ego hates to rest. The ego doesn't want to let God, or sleep, mend up the raveled sleeve of care. The ego would like to handle all that itself, thank you. As artists, we must serve our souls, not our egos. Our souls need rest...
-from Walking in This World (p. 28-29)
by Julia Cameron
December 19th, 2010 :: Reading Days
Art is for me the great integrater, and I understand Christianity as I understand art. I understand Christmas as I understand Bach's Sleepers Awake
or Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring;
as I understand Braque's clowns, Blake's poetry. And I understand it when I am able to pray with the mind in the heart, as Theophan the Recluse advised. When we pray with the mind in the heart, sunside and nightside are integrated, we begin to heal, and we come close to the kind of understanding which can accept an unacceptable Christianity. When I am able to pray with the mind in the heart, I am joyfully able to affirm the irrationality of Christmas.
The Irrational Season
November 21st, 2010 :: Reading Days
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
"We do not surrender. But want peace."
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
October 24th, 2010 :: Reading Days
I first read this poem in senior AP English some 20 years ago. Standing at the kitchen sink this week peeling a boiled egg, I glanced out the window and a flock of birds heading south passed by. Immediately I thought of The Great Scarf of Birds.
When I went to look up the poem this morning, I discovered that Updike wrote it 48 years ago tomorrow: October 25, 1962.
The Great Scarf of Birds
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V's
of geese streaming south, mare's-tails above them;
their trumpeting made us look up from golf.
The course sloped into salt marshes
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.
As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron filings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.
"I never saw so many birds!" my friend exclaimed;
we returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot's wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I shifted my bag and looked back.
The rise of the fairway behind us was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad but grass.
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady's scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward, and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
dissolving all anxiety,
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.
September 27th, 2010 :: Reading Days
The geranium and the begonia
bloom with such offhand redundance
we scarcely notice. But the
amaryllis is a study in
disruption: everything routine
gives way to the unsheathing
of its climbing telescope--
a supernova of twin crimson
tunnels, porches of infinity
where last week there was nothing.
Months of clandestine preparation
now implode in pollen
that will never brush a bee,
fueling the double-barreled velvet
stairwell of its sterile pistils
with a tapered incandescence
that's already short of breath
and going blind before a
week is out. Such show
of breeding, such an excess
of cultivation, all but asks us
to stop breathing too until
it's over. I remember
how, the night the somewhat
famous violinist came to supper,
the whisper of the gown she
put on just before the concert
filled the parlor of the farmhouse
with things it had no room for--
the slave marts of the East,
the modes of Paris, the gazing
ramparts of the stratosphere.
August 15th, 2010 :: Reading Days
Since a large percentage of control over fate doesn't exist, how to go forward?
Cultivate interior life as though it were a garden sanctuary.
Give away what you can.
Squander your love.
- from Every Day in Tuscany by Francis Mayes
July 18th, 2010 :: Reading Days
If at the most susceptible age, from the age of 6 to 16, the child isnít at least once moved by the life-giving power of great music, later he will hardly be influenced by it. Many times one single experience opens the young soul to music for his whole life. This experience shouldnít be left to chance: to obtain it is the duty of the schools.
June 20th, 2010 :: Reading Days
You can hardly go wrong if you pay exquisite attention to creation. You can hardly go wrong
if you pay exquisite attention to your neighbor near and far. You can hardly go wrong if you
will trust that what is happening to you every day carries within it the seeds of wisdom that
you are in desperate need of. You can hardly go wrong if you learn to bless the most ordinary
things that appear before you every day. You can hardly go wrong if you travel ready to be
surprised by God, whether it's across the world or just to your backyard.
-- Barbara Brown Taylor, on the practice of faith
May 9th, 2010 :: Reading Days
Avoid sharp things like corners, scissor points,
words and blades and cheddar cheese. Eschew
whatever's heavy, fast, and cumbersome:
meteorites, rumbly truck and stinky bus,
hockey players, falling vaults, and buffalo.
Steer clear of headlines, bank advices,
legal language, papal bulls, and grocery ads.
Every morning, listen to baroque divertimenti,
romantic operas, Hildegarde von Bingen hymns.
Evenings, read some lines from Shakespeare's comedies;
do a page of algebra; study shapes of clouds
and alchemy; make fun of your husbands feet.
Practice listening like a doe at the edge
of the earth's deep woods, but learn to disregard
most everything you hear (especially your father
and father-in-law). Learn some Indian lullabies;
speak with magic stones beneath your tongue.
Finally, I wish, avoid all tearsóexcept
that the world and time will have their way
and weep we must. Perhaps enough is said
of grief and happiness to realize
that any child of yours will live a lifetime
utterly beguiled (as my child is)
by your bright smile, your wild and Irish laugh.
from The Saints of Diminished Capacity
April 4th, 2010 :: Reading Days
That's a Take
"Amy," my true love used to say, "I am marrying you because Ella is unavailable."
She's just finished mourning for us all
the fact that spring is here
above the buzz and clatter of this crowded cafe
where I have stopped reading the paper
because it's impolite to do anything
while Ella Fitzgerald is singing.
And in the pause that follows, I imagine her
turning away from the bright, entranced
face of the microphone,
kidding with the sound technicians
while putting on her hat and a pale green sweater
before she steps out of the studio
and into a spring day as it played out
in 1951, the year I was born,
stopping on the way home at a little deli
to pick up something for supper,
turning words like macaroni
and potato salad
into tiny American songs
for the pimply kid behind the counter
who thinks nothing of it,
who has his own problems,
who bears his own secret beauty through the world.
February 14th, 2010 :: Reading Days
The modern biographers worry
"how far it went," their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone's eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.
January 31st, 2010 :: Reading Days
It is sometimes said that the great teachers and mentors, the wise men and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers....do something else. They don't mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of oracular authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunications. The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model---they probably have to--but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves. (p. 281)
-from Through the Children's Gate by Adam Gopnik
January 3rd, 2010 :: Reading Days
I check the locks on the front door
and the side door,
make sure the windows are closed
and the heat dialed down.
I switch off the computer,
turn off the living room lights.
I let in the cats.
Reverently, I unplug the Christmas tree,
leaving Christ and the little animals
in the dark.
The last thing I do
is step out to the back yard
for a quick look at the Milky Way.
The stars are halogen-blue.
The constellations, whose names
I have long since forgotten,
look down anonymously,
and the whole galaxy
is cartwheeling in silence through the night.
Everything seems to be ok.
December 27th, 2009 :: Reading Days
From this high midtown hall, undecked with boughs, unfortified with mistletoe, we send forth our tinselled greetings as of old, to friends, to readers, to strangers of many conditions in many places.
Merry Christmas to uncertified accountants, to tellers who have made a mistake in addition, to girls who have made a mistake in judgment, to grounded airline passengers, and to all those who canít eat clams!
We greet with particular warmth people who wake and smell smoke. To captains of river boats on snowy mornings we send an answering toot at this holiday time. Merry Christmas to intellectuals and other despised minorities! Merry Christmas to the musicians of Muzak and men whose shoes donít fit! Greetings of the season to unemployed actors and the blacklisted everywhere who suffer for sins uncommitted; a holly thorn in the thumb of compilers of lists!
Greetings to wives who canít find their glasses and to poets who canít find their rhymes! Merry Christmas to the unloved, the misunderstood, the overweight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word ďHowĒ (as though they knew!). Greetings to people with a ringing in their ears; greetings to growers of gourds, to shearers of sheep, and to makers of change in the lonely underground booths! Merry Christmas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christmas to people who canít stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the boarders in boarding hoses on 25 December, the duennas in Central Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got nothing in the mail. Merry Christmas to people who plant trees in city streets; merry Christmas to people who save prairie chickens from extinction! Greetings of a purely mechanical sort to machines that thinkĖplus a sprig of artificial holly. Joyous Yule to Cadillac owners whose conduct is unworthy of their car! Merry Christmas to the defeated, the forgotten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bunglers! We send, most particularly and most hopefully, our greetings and our prayers to soldiers and guardsmen on land and sea and in the airĖthe young men doing the hardest things at the hardest time of life. To all such, Merry Christmas, blessings, and good luck!
We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christmas to our new leaders, peace on earth, good will, and good management! Merry Christmas to couples unhappy in doorways! Merry Christmas to all who think they are in love but arenít sure! Greetings to people waiting for trains that will take them in the wrong direction, to people doing up a bundle and the string is too short, to children with sleds and no snow! We greet ministers who canít think of a moral, gagmen who canít think of a joke. Greetings, too, to the inhabitants of other planets; see you soon!
And last, we greet all skaters on small natural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of afternoon. Merry Christmas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morrow!
December 6th, 2009 :: Reading Days
They sit around the house
Not doing much of anything: the boxed set
Of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:
The French-cut silk shirts
Which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
And make me look exactly
Like the kind of middle-aged man
Who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:
The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
The mysteries of the heavens
But which I only used once or twice
To try to find something heavenly
In the window of the high-rise down the road,
And which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
When it could be examining the Crab Nebula:
The 30-day course in Spanish
Whose text I never opened,
Whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,
Save for Tape One, where I never learned
Whether the suave American
Conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
At a Madrid hotel about the possibility
Of obtaining a room,
Actually managed to check in.
I like to think
That one thing led to another between them
And that by Tape Six or so
Theyíre happily married
And raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.
But Iíll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
For a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
Who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,
And I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
There lives a woman with, say,
A fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
Near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
Drying in their tubes
On the table where the violin
She bought on a whim
Lies entombed in the permanent darkness
Of its locked case
Next to the abandoned chess set,
A woman who has always dreamed of becoming
The kind of woman the man Iíve always dreamed of becoming
Has always dreamed of meeting,
And while the two of them discuss star clusters
And Cťzanne, while they fence delicately
In Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,
She and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
Fixing up a little risotto,
Enjoying a modest cabernet,
While talking over a day so ordinary
As to seem miraculous.
- George Bilgere
November 1st, 2009 :: Reading Days
It's better to be a cat than to be a human.
Not because of their much-noted grace and beautyó
their beauty wins them no added pleasure, grace is
only a cat's way
of getting without fuss from one place to anotheró
but because they see things as they are. Cats never mistake a
saucer of milk for a declaration of passion
or the crook of your knees for
a permanent address. Observing two cats on a sunporch,
you might think of them as a pair of Florentine bravoes
awaiting through slitted eyes the least lapse of attentionó
then slash! the stiletto
or alternately as a long-married couple, who hardly
notice each other but find it somehow a comfort
sharing the couch, the evening news, the cocoa.
Both these ideas
are wrong. Two cats together are like two strangers
cast up by different storms on the same desert island
who manage to guard, despite the utter absence
of privacy, chocolate,
useful domestic articles, reading material,
their separate solitudes. They would not dream of
telling each other their dreams, or the plots of old movies,
or inventing a bookful
of coconut recipes. Where we would long ago have
frantically shredded our underwear into signal
flags and be dancing obscenely about on the shore in
a desperate frenzy,
they merely shift on their haunches, calm as two stoics
weighing the probable odds of the soul's immortality,
as if to say, if a ship should happen along we'll
be rescued. If not, not.
by Katha Pollitt
October 4th, 2009 :: Reading Days
In the typical urban landscape which is home to most advanced students of music, their physical and metaphysical companions are for the most part noise, grime, traffic, the behemoth skyscrapers which dominate sunless streets, beggars, bag ladies, the homeless, the whole panoply of driven and derelict society, hypocrisy, and injustice. What is comfortable, elegant, and fashionable lies beyond the student's price range, and often beyond the bounds of good taste (atriums and malls). There is solace in the hot-dog vendor, the boutiques for cheese and sushi, jeans and shades, the neurotic squirrels hustling the curbs, the crummy theaters showing old movies. There is solace in the museums, parks, and libraries. There is solace in each other, struggling and hoping, trying to figure out the game, waiting for reinforcements to prop up old and frayed ideals. And there is solace in music, despite its illusory path as the ladder to success (but mostly to failure).
From this environment, better or worse according to one's quota of resiliency, must grow the Elysian fields of musical majesty and expression. It works best if you believe that sensory deprivation stimulates the senses. (p. 109)
- from Piano Pieces by Russell Sherman
September 13th, 2009 :: Reading Days
When love is felt
or fear is known,
When holidays and
and such times come,
arrive by calendar
When seasons come
as seasons do
old and known,
but somehow new
When lives are born
or people die
When something sacred's sensed in soil or sky,
Mark the time.
Respond with thought or prayer
or smile or grief.
Let nothing living, life or leaf
the fingers of the mind
for all of these are holy things
we will not, cannot, find again.
July 26th, 2009 :: Reading Days
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
and first light
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let's see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can't be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
June 28th, 2009 :: Reading Days
My stepdaughter and I circle round and round.
You see, I like the music loud, the speakers
throbbing, jam-packing the room with sound whether
Bach or rock and roll, the volume cranked up so
each bass note is like a hand smacking the gut.
But my stepdaughter disagrees. She is four
and likes the music decorous, pitched below
her own voice--that tenuous projection of self.
With music blasting, she feels she disappears,
is lost within the blare, which in fact I like.
But at four what she wants is self-location
and uses her voice as a porpoise uses
its sonar: to find herself in all this space.
If she had a sort of box with a peephole
and looked inside, what she'd like to see would be
herself standing there in her red pants, jacket,
yellow plastic lunch box: a proper subject
for serious study. But me, if I raised
the same box to my eye, I would wish to find
the ocean on one of those days when wind
and thick cloud make the water gray and restless
as if some creature brooded underneath,
a rocky coast with a road along the shore
where someone like me was walking and has gone.
Loud music does this, it wipes out the ego,
leaving turbulent water and winding road,
a landscape stripped of people and language--
how clear the air becomes, how sharp the colors.
June 1st, 2009 :: Reading Days
...To write of Katharine simply as a gardener would be like writing of Ben Franklin simply as a printer. Gardening was indeed a part of her, but it was never her major interest, consuming all her thoughts and all her talents. She simply accepted the act of gardening as the natural thing to be occupied with in one's spare time, no matter where one was or how deeply involved in other affairs....
...Katharine never belonged to a garden club. I don't think she would have fitted in very well. In fact, had she joined, there is a good chance she would have been expelled for insubordination: she refused to pay any attention to the National Council with its dicta governing the acceptable arrangement of flowers in a container. Her garden was her clubhouse, where there were bugs but no rules...
...When Miss Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English woman who opened up a whole new vista of gardening for Victorian England, prepared herself to work in her gardens, she pulled on a pair of Army boots and tied on an apron fitted with great pockets for her tools. Unlike Miss Jekyll, my wife had no garden clothes and never dressed for gardening. When she paid a call on her perennial borders or her cutting bed or her rose garden, she was not dressed for the part--she was simply a spur-of-the-moment escapee from the house and, in her early years, from the job of editing manuscripts. Her Army boots were likely to be Ferragamo shoes, and she wore no apron. I seldom saw her prepare for gardening, she merely wandered out into the cold and the wet, into the sun and the warmth, wearing whatever she had put on that morning. Once she was drawn into the fray, once involved in transplanting or weeding or thinning or pulling deadheads, she forgot all else; her clothes had to take things as they came. I, who was the animal husbandryman on the place, in blue jeans and and old shirt, used to marvel at how unhesitatingly she would kneel in the dirt and begin grubbing about, garbed in a spotless cotton dress or a handsome tweed skirt and jacket. She simply refused to dress down to a garden; she moved in elegantly and walked among her flowers as she walked among her friends--nicely dressed, perfectly poised. If when she arrived back indoors the Ferragamos were encased in muck, she kicked them off. If the tweed suit was a mess, she sent it to the cleaner's.
The only moment in the year when she actually got herself up for gardening was on the day in fall that she had selected, in advanced, for the laying out of the spring bulb garden--a crucial operation, carefully charted and full of witchcraft...As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion--the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.
-taken from the Introduction by E. B. White to Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine S. White
April 4th, 2009 :: Reading Days
...Could teachers gather around the great thing called "teaching and learning" and explore its mysteries with the same respect we accord any subject worth knowing?
We need to learn how to do so, for such a gathering is one of the few means we have to become better teachers. There are no formulas for good teaching, and the advice of experts has but marginal utility. If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft.
If I want to teach well, it is essential that I explore my inner terrain. But I can get lost in there, practicing self-delusion and running in self-serving circles. So I need the guidance that a community of collegial discourse provides--to say nothing of the support such a community can offer to sustain me in the trials of teaching and the cumulative and collective wisdom about this craft that can be found in every faculty worth its salt.
Resources that could help us teach better are available from each other--if we could get access to them. But there, of course, is the rub. Academic culture builds barriers between colleagues even higher and wider than those between us and our students. These barriers come partly from the competition that keeps us fragmented by fear. But they also come from the fact that teaching is perhaps the most privatized of all the public professions.
Though we teach in front of students, we almost always teach solo, out of collegial sight--as contrasted with surgeons or trial lawyers, who work in the presence of others who know their craft well. Lawyers argue cases in front of other lawyers, where gaps in their skill and knowledge are clear for all to see. Surgeons operate under the gaze of specialists who notice if a hand trembles, making malpractice less likely. But teachers can lose sponges or amputate the wrong limb with no witnesses except the victims. (Italics mine; p. 141-142)
-from Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer
March 15th, 2009 :: Reading Days
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.
He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.
He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.
I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladders of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.
I am learning to play
"It Might As Well Be Spring"
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him into the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.
Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.
March 1st, 2009 :: Reading Days
...All children are artists, and it is an indictment of our culture that so many of them lose their creativity, their unfettered imaginations, as they grow older. But they start off without self-consciousness as they paint their purple flowers, their anatomically impossible people, their thunderous, sulphurous skies. They don't worry that they may not be as good as Di Chirico or Bracque; they know intuitively that it is folly to make comparisons, and they go ahead and say what they want to say. What looks like a hat to a grownup may, to the child artist, be an elephant inside a boa constrictor. (p. 57)
...The artist, if he is not to forget how to listen, must retain the vision which includes angels and dragons and unicorns and all the lovely creatures which our world would put in a box marked Children Only. (p.21)
...In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars. (p. 61)
-from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle
February 8th, 2009 :: Reading Days
To Play Pianissimo
Does not mean silence.
The absence of moon in the day sky
Does not mean barely to speak,
the way a child's whisper
makes only warm air
on his mother's right ear.
To play pianissimo
is to carry sweet words
to the old woman in the last dark row
who cannot hear anything else,
and to lay them across her lap like a shawl.
-from Desire Lines: New and Selected Poems by Lola Haskins
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com